Ultimate Headphone Guide Articles: Headphones and Hearing Safety
Headphones and Hearing Safety
Safety is very important for any hobby involving loud noises. Race fans and gun enthusiasts, for example, require protection to avoid long-term hearing damage. But for the audiophile, sound is the whole point of the hobby. Education, along with some common sense, is essential.
Overexposure to loud volumes has a cumulative effect that damages the ears on a physical level. Hearing a temporary ringing sound after attending a loud concert is a just small glimpse of what could eventually become a permanent condition called "tinnitus". While some types of sensory hair cells inside the ear do have the ability to recover from over-exposure to loud sounds, new research (Kujawa and Liberman, 2009) suggests irreversible damage takes place in other parts of the auditory system. This damage may not manifest until much later and is completely undetectable at first. Years down the road, when the hearing problems actually do surface, there's no way to go back and reverse the process.
It's not easy to tell if headphones are too loud, and in contrast to speakers, even the cheapest headphone can usually play extremely loud, even with modest equipment. Combine this with the delayed symptoms of hearing damage and it's easy to see why headphone users are a particularly high risk demographic. If you value your hearing and plan on enjoying this hobby for many years to come, you'll definitely want to be responsible when it comes to volume levels.
Setting the Volume
The simplest way to set the volume on headphones at a safe level is to slowly turn them down until it's obviously too quiet, then turn it back up a notch or two. Try to resist slowly creeping up the volume over time. Here's an encouraging note: At volume levels above 90dBspl, the small bones of your middle ear begin to automatically tense to limit damage to the inner ear (called the stapedius reflex). This reflex adds both noise and distortion to the music heard. Yes, your music will actually have better sound quality if the volume remains at a moderate level.
Signal to Noise
Open headphones don't offer any isolation. So people tend to listen at louder levels to overcome interference from background noise. Sealed headphones, and particularly noise-cancelling models, should require lower levels to get the same music signal to environmental noise ratio. That doesn't necessarily make them safer in all cases, but it might help for some users.
In-ear monitors are noteworthy in that they require an extra degree of maintenance not needed by larger headphones. Since their tips insert into the ear canal itself, they require cleaning on a regular basis. Use of dirty tips could result in irritation or even infection in some cases. In-ear monitors tend to isolate fairly well but are also very sensitive and thus easier to accidentally play at extreme levels. A good practice is to completely lower volume on the playback device before inserting the monitors, then slowly raise the volume to comfortable levels.
Part of being a responsible listener is getting periodic hearing checkups. Most people get yearly eye exams and dental checkups, but surprisingly few bother to test their hearing on a regular basis. The test produces a chart called an audiogram that looks something like a frequency response chart. It's a relatively simple process that can be done by an Audiologist or most hearing aid dispensers. Routine testing makes it easier to spot early signs of hearing loss and make the necessary adjustments to help combat further damage. Larger chains like Costco sometimes offer free testing but it's definitely worth paying for if needed.
Recommended Noise Exposure Limits
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) establishes guidelines for how long we can tolerate noise, and at what levels, before putting ourselves at risk. Higher volumes equal shorter allowable exposure time, but it can also be dangerous to play moderate levels for lengthy periods.